The Southern California Grocery Workers union Friday issued a June 21 deadline in its contract talks with the Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons supermarket chains, threatening to take a strike vote if no deal is competed by then.

Saying it wants to avoid contract talks dragging on indefinitely, the union set the deadline more than three months after the March 5 contract expiration date and more than six months after talks with chain operators began.

"Six months is more than enough time to get a deal done," Mario Frias, a Ralphs employee, said in a prepared statement, which went on to say that a strike vote would begin on June 24 if no deal was reached.

A spokeswoman for the supermarket chains criticized the deadline and strike vote as not conducive to the ongoing negotiations.

"The union's threat of strike vote and the setting of an arbitrary deadline does nothing to help the negotiation process," said spokeswoman Adena Tessler. "That said, significant progress has been made, and we would be delighted if we could reach agreement by June 21."

Reports surfaced two weeks ago of progress being made on the major issue separating the two sides: the restoration of health benefits for new employees. Those benefits were phased out after a lengthy strike three years ago.

However, the grocery workers union has since downplayed the reports of a breakthrough. "While there is some progress, grocery workers and the employers are still far from agreement on funding for employee health care, wages and other key issues," the statement said.

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